The state Department of Environmental Conservation this week notified the owners of the stretch of rail line that runs from North Creek to Tahawus that it plans to ask the federal government to declare the rail line “abandoned.”

The state Attorney General’s Office, representing the DEC, filed paperwork with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board on Monday, seeking a declaration that Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC should no longer be able to operate on the rail line. A formal declaration that the line is abandoned would be a big step forward for those seeking to establish a recreational trail there.

The move comes despite the fact that a Colorado company plans to purchase the line from Iowa Pacific, according to documents obtained by The Post-Star.

The DEC’s case rests in part on Iowa Pacific’s “absence of current use” of the 29-mile line, as well as a “lack of any reasonably foreseeable future need for rail service on the line,” according to the state filing.

“In addition, there are significant environmental, health and safety concerns associated with the current use of the property,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Joshua Tallent.

Tallent wrote the state would file its full legal brief, advocating for an abandonment of the line, by the end of August.

The move has concerned some municipal leaders, who worry that having the stretch of rail deemed “abandoned” would limit options for use of the rail line owned by Warren County and the town of Corinth to the south, particularly as there is a new suitor for it.

“I’m concerned about it,” said Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson, chairman of Warren County Board of Supervisors Public Works Committee, which oversees the railroad. “I don’t want them to foreclose on our options.”

The filing is the latest move in a legal battle that began late last year when Iowa Pacific, which operated Saratoga & North Creek Railway between Saratoga Springs and North Creek, began storing out-of-service rail tanker cars on the Tahawus line. That infuriated environmental groups and state officials who argued it was an environmental problem in the state Forest Preserve.

The rail line runs to former mineral mines in the hamlet of Tahawus in the town of Newcomb, which have been closed for nearly three decades. Iowa Pacific had hoped to remove stone tailings from the mines, but the business did not develop, and the company pulled up stakes earlier this summer after 7 years. A Franklin County contractor bought the mine earlier this year and wanted to take the stone out by rail, but has been using trucks as well.

Ed Ellis, Iowa Pacific’s owner, notified Warren County officials earlier this year that he hoped to sell the Tahawus line, saying he wanted $5 million for it. He reportedly paid $1 million in 2012 to buy it from former mine owner NL Industries but argued his company put millions of dollars into improvements.

A written railroad operation proposal sent to Warren County earlier this summer shows that railroad company OmniTRAX of Colorado claims it plans to purchase the Tahawus line later this year. The company wants to remove stone from the former mines. (See companion article.)

A number of groups are pushing for the rail line, which has struggled to support tourist and freight operations with a number of operators, to be converted into a recreational trail.

It appears the line could become a trail by default if declared abandoned. A company that offers “rail bike” rides, Revolution Rail Co., is currently using a section of it pursuant to a contract with Iowa Pacific.

“All interested persons should be aware that following any abandonment of rail service and salvage of the line, the line may be suitable for other public uses, including interim trail use,” Tallent wrote.

Neither Ellis nor Iowa Pacific’s counsel responded to requests for comment on the matter this week.

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reporter - crimes & courts, public safety and Warren County government

Don Lehman covers crime and Warren County government for The Post-Star. His work can be found on Twitter @PS_CrimeCourts and on poststar.com/app/blogs.

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